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Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

A Season for Dying: A Quartet of Mystery Novels

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Of all the mystery series I have enjoyed lately, the one that follows Martin Limon's Sergeant Sueno and Bascom has become my favorite. Set in Korea during the Vietnam War, the crimes are full of U.S. military and Korean civilian mash-ups that keep the issues of the post-war society as much a part of the plot as the crimes investigated by 8th Army Criminal Investigation Division agents George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. While I enjoy the relationship between the two cops, and how they constantly butt heads both with the Korean police and their own superiors, it is the rich sense of place that really keeps these books at the time of my list. After the Korean War, South Korea was full of US soldiers, a lot of people struggling to survive and a lot of people working the system to get ahead. It's no surprise that crime was rampant but Limon isn't interested in predictable crime; he wants stories that are as much about Korea as they are about the 8th Army and with his latest, G.I. Bones he delivers big time.

In the opening chapter Sueno learns about a U.S. soldier who was apparently murdered in 1953. There is a record of a soldier missing from that time, but although his case was diligently pursued, his body was never found and no one was charged. Sueno and Bascom bust the case open and quickly find themselves not only investigating the murder, but a massacre of Korean civilians that occurred at the same time. People start dying, good, bad and some in a particularly grisly fashion while the two cops find themselves alternately lauded and blamed for what they discover. As the dirty secrets of the nearby town of Itaewon, a serious G.I. hotspot, are uncovered the tragedies of the past and present converge in numerous ways. On top of everything else, a high ranking officer with a runaway teenage daughter causes everyone on the base to pursue her at the expense of all other cases. So with Korean blood literally dripping from their hands, the cops are supposed to look for a teen queen with daddy issues; to say they are annoyed would be an understatement.

There is a lot going on in G.I. Bones, from the stark appraisal of Korean/American history to the review of the many class and race issues within the Army itself. Sueno and Bascom are canny and tough and heavily steeped in the politics of survival; these guys break all the rules they need to while adhering to the ones that few others even acknowledge. They walk a fine line between two cultures and two worlds and never lose sight of the value of a life—any life—that crosses their path. They are brutal but brainy which basically means they are a couple of very human heroes. I wish they would make this into a television series (and not screw it up). If you read one new series this year then Limon's is the one.

Half the world away in Paris, Cara Black returns with a new entry in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in the Latin Quarter. Oh Aimee—things get very personal for her this go-round (not that they haven't been personal since the very first book) and she finds herself not only running for her life (as usual) but also questioning everything she thought she ever knew about herself and her family. This time the missing person in Aimee's life is a Haitian woman who claims to be her half sister. Finding Mireille and uncovering why several people seem to want to kill her (and why a prominent Haitian doctor she knew has been murdered) propels the action forward at a clear ninety miles an hour. Part of the problem is that Aimee does not know for sure how she feels about Mireille being her sister and that uncertainly clouds her judgment more than once. She is the spoiler in a far bigger drama however, which includes a lot of history about Haiti and a lot of unsavory modern day politics. There are people who thought they would not get caught but Aimee won't let them go because of Mireille and because of that a whole international plot begins to unravel.

Readers new to Black's series must really go back to the beginning as Aimee's personal life has developed in fits and starts with each volume. In this respect she reminds me of mystery stalwarts Spenser or Travis McGee, especially in her relationship with business partner Rene and old family friend and cop Morbier. There are layers, both positive and negative, to these friendships as there are to all of Black's recurring characters. You could certainly enjoy the drama of Latin Quarter without knowing all of the backstory but I have to wonder why you would want to when it's so much better to immerse yourself in Aimee's world. She is an Nancy Drew with panache, a woman who loves big and falls hard while skirting the backstreets of her city in the rain and the snow. She's bold with a gun when she has to be, but also whip smart at the day job where she and Rene provide computer security for powerful clients. Aimee also is unashamedly sentimental about her deceased father and the mother who left for destinations unknown decades before. What you have in Aimee Leduc is simply one of the more complex female characters in the genre today. With Murder in the Latin Quarter her life gets a lot stickier, but Black doesn't let up. She also doesn't back away from challenging her readers with a healthy dose of just what the hell has gone wrong in Haiti for the last couple of hundred years and France's historic and ongoing culpability in the economic mess there. You have to pay attention in these books but the payoff is huge and with Latin Quarter Black yet again rewards her readers.

Turkish author Selcuk Altun has written a mystery in Many and Many A Year Ago that combines elements of Edgar Allen Poe with multiple missing persons cases and the struggles for a former air force pilot to cope with life on the ground following a devastating accident. It begins with Kemal Kuray providing a long detailed description of his childhood, his deep love of music and how he became a F-16 pilot. After he is forced to eject and suffers permanent injuries which prevent him from flying again, Kemal finds himself at the whim of a former student now international man of mystery (and enormous wealthy). Suat seeks to repay Kemal for old kindnesses and provides him with a paid apartment and generous monthly allowance. (Suat also appears to be dead, although this fact quickly comes into question) It is after Kemal moves into his fully furnished home that odd characters and sleuthing opportunities seem to fall into his lap. He knows he is being played to a certain degree but doesn't know why. So as he solves these small mysteries the reader ponders with him the truth behind the larger picture and just what Poe has to do with all of it.

I have to say that I found Altun's writing style to be very addictive. Every time a new character shows up there is an interlude where they share the story of their life with Kemal. Oddly, these leisurely moments do not slow down the plot but serve instead to humanize everyone involved in the story. And Kemal himself is awesome. He is believable as a teen music fanatic (who accidentally becomes a drug courier), as a fighter pilot and later as a dapper Nick Charles with a penchant for visiting the local dance club/brothel. (In his defense I will say that as soon as he discovers his Nora, these visits stop.) Altun is clearly a big Poe fan and the many allusions to the novelist's life and death and Suat's own fascination with him will keep western readers involved in the narrative through some discussion of unfamiliar places. In the end I found Many and Many A Year Ago to be a fun light-hearted literary mystery that is more character study than anything else. Basically, it's a Turkish cozy with a fighter pilot as sleuth—I don't know how Altun pulled it all off but he did, and in smashing fashion.

The new outing in the Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne series No More Dying finds author David Roberts blending his Peter Whimsey/Harriet Vane (or Amelia Peabody/Radcliffe Emerson minus the archeology) duo with the Kennedy family in pre-World War II London. Edward and Verity get married this go-round (huzzah!) but that is just a minor plot point. It's mostly about Verity's wavering commitment to the local communist party and a series of murders that are pointed squarely at Ambassador Joe Kennedy. Some of the older Kennedy kids are along for local color (Joe Jr, Jack and Kathleen—oddly Eunice is no where to be seen) and Edward must determine if there is a killer in the American embassy. The political intrigue comes fast and furious here as Winston Churchill makes a few cameos, Kennedy spouts off his theories of appeasement and communist activists and Spanish war vets all clamor for attention. Who is killing who and why becomes harder and harder to figure as the bodies around Kennedy keep piling up. There's also a dangerous liaison or two that does not end well until finally we cut through all the chaos and heroics ensue on a mountaintop. In a brief afterword, Roberts shares what happened to the three Kennedy kids who shone so brightly in the story and for anyone who knows their history, it is truly a tragic postscript.

There was no small amount of confusion for me as the plot came together here—Roberts is really juggling a lot with his local and international themes. Verity's involvement in the local communist group is fascinating stuff though and her struggle to balance the utopian vision of political ideal versus its very ugly reality, not to mention some brutal power struggles, humanizes the many people who embraced communism for the best of reasons during this time period. Verity is no Stalinist but she's not a fan of England's classist system either. How she weighs that against loving a lord is no easy thing and it's hard not to cheer for her as she keeps putting her foot forward to prove she doesn't need Edward—even though she does.

I liked Verity and Edward a lot and find the evolution of their relationship to be a definite treat. The mystery is the weaker element here, as it exists mostly to incorporate the Kennedys into the story and their presence just seems to raise more questions than answers. I kept wondering where the heck Rose was (she is "away") and Rosemary is never mentioned, nor Eunice nor the younger children. It's not that I thought little Teddy would be running into the dining room but from reading this book one would think there were only three Kennedy children with an abrasive father and absent mother. There's too much history here not to keep those loose ends tied up and this drags down the plot a bit as readers can't help but notice it.

No More Dying might not be the strongest entry in the series but a lot happens here for our main couple and so it must be read for those reasons alone. If you are a fan of England between the wars then I do recommend reading it however—you'll find another stark reminder of how society was rewriting itself in the 1930s and no one could figure out just who they were or what on earth they were supposed to do.

 

G.I. Bones
By Martin Limon
Soho Press 2009
ISBN 1-56947-603-1
336 pages

Murder in the Latin Quarter
By Cara Black
Soho Press 2009
ISBN 1-56947-541-6
317 pages

Many and Many A Year Ago
By Selcuk Altun
Translated by Clifford and Selhan Endres
Telegram 2009
ISBN 1-84659-067-2
270 pages

No More Dying
By David Roberts
ISBN 1-56947-539-3
258 pages

 

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